When Emmett Smith (Bruce Willis) left his home in rural Kentucky to fight in Vietnam, he heard promises of his country’s devotion. Decades later, Emmett — alienated, unemployed and plagued by waking nightmares of a war he’s embarrassed he survived — mopes around his ramshackle house playing video games, watching M* A* S* H reruns and scratching a face rash that may be the result of Agent Orange.
Emmett is a forgotten man. He is alone. In 1985, Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel In Country (the GI term for duty time in Vietnam) brought the war home to those of us who’d never been there, to those of us who do the forgetting about men like Emmett. A movie version was inevitable. Director Norman Jewison (Moonstruck), working from an overemphatic screenplay by Frank Pierson and Cynthia Cidre, has barely caught the tail of Mason’s soaring comet of a book. That’s still enough to produce one of the year’s most emotionally shattering films.
With uncanny skill, Willis finds the frightened kid hiding behind Emmett’s detached stare. He gives a dynamite performance, both touching and haunting. Emmett’s niece, Sam, played by the eighteen-year-old British actress Emily Lloyd (Cookie), is always nagging at Emmett to tell her about Vietnam; her father, Dwayne, died in action there before she was born. Sam’s mother (Joan Allen) avoids the subject; she’s remarried and moved away. Now Sam cares for Emmett. At a poorly attended veterans’ dance, Sam’s attempt to rekindle Emmett’s old flame for Anita (Judith Ivey) fails as dismally as her own one-night stand with an impotent vet (John Terry).
Lloyd does a fine job of capturing Sam’s exuberant need to unlock her past and find herself. But the deeper shadings elude her. In the scene in which Sam finds her father’s war diary and reads with horror his accommodation to killing, you can’t help imagining what a resourceful firebrand like Winona Ryder might have done with the role. Jewison’s literal approach doesn’t help. No sooner does Emmett speak symbolically of egrets in Vietnam who protected buffalo by picking bugs off their heads than Jewison is pointing the camera at the bird. There’s also no defending the awkward battle flashbacks, the shaky Southern accents, the missed plot transitions or the static monologues that turn what was profound on the page into pretension on the screen.
Still, the pull of Mason’s story wears down resistance. You keep rooting for this picture. Maybe it’s to excuse your tears when Emmett, Sam and Sam’s paternal grandmother — the wonderfully feisty Peggy Rea — make the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to see Dwayne’s name (one among 58,022) inscribed on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Emmett has come to heal old wounds. This time Emmett is not alone. As his family and the loved ones of other vets file by leaving mementos to make peace with the dead, In Country — on course at last — steers a straight and stirring passage to the heart.